Through the plays of Sawomir Mroek, observed Kott, the Poland that meant nowhere to Alfred Jarry in Ubu roi (wr. 1888, pr., pb. 1896; English translation, 1951) is now everywhere indeed. Both Mroek’s short fiction and his plays, although influenced by an Absurdist tradition of which Jarry is a part, translate the experience of modern Poland into a striking vision that depends on the tension between the surreal and the real. Whereas Jarry used a fantastical Poland as a metaphor for a destructive banality that allows human cruelty to thrive, Mroek renders his actual experience in Poland as an ironic nightmare in which the reality of daily life is shaped by a regimen of absurdity and bureaucratic banality. The world he captures has survived the grotesque experience of World War II only to be forced to accept the inevitable prospect of endless Soviet domination. Mroek captures the absurd workings of this society in a concise, usually unelaborate style marked by an ironic sensibility cultivated as a response to illogical happenings and to absurdity as inextricable parts of existence.
Theater critics outside Poland have often found themselves at a loss in discussing the peculiarities of Mroek’s work as well as the traditions of the Polish theater to which his plays are indebted. Martin Esslin has called him an absurdist who creates political theater; Daniel Gerould has dubbed Mroek, along with his countryman Tadeusz Róewicz, heir to a legacy of Polish avant-garde drama; and Tango has been described as both an Aesopian satire and a Shavian play of ideas. Mroek’s plays, however, exceed the limits of any one school or movement. His development as a dramatist is a chronicle of formal innovation and experimentation in response to theater history and to the culture and history of Poland. Yet, as Jan Kott, the Polish critic, has noted, in Mroek’s plays the references go beyond Poland to encompass all Europe.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Mroek’s attempts to redefine the theater in the wake of the triumph of the absurdists, an endeavor analogous to the work of such dramatists as Edward Bond, Václav Havel, Arthur Kopit, and Stoppard. As one of his Polish precursors, Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), intended to do, Mroek redefines the drama through a revolution in form, and his plays spring from a dramatic consciousness that shares Witkacy’s belief that the playwright must shake off old habits and stop repeating the past. All of Mroek’s work during the first part of his career generically addresses itself to the problem of form in postabsurdist art, and Tango deals specifically with the questions of form as a necessary component of social, political, and cultural history. The opening of Tango in Poland in 1965 is considered the most explosive night in Polish theater since the premiere of Stanisaw Wyspiaski’s Wesele (pr., pb. 1901; The Wedding, 1933), and the numerous productions of Tango throughout the world have focused attention on both Mroek and Polish drama. His plays have been produced in Canada, France, Great Britain, Norway, the Soviet Union, the United States, and West Germany.
Czesaw Miosz has observed that Mroek often employs a sly parody of styles in his work, and both his fiction and his plays have been described as parables. The absurd, grotesque, totalitarian environment that had conditioned Mroek’s thinking deprives him of bestowing on his works the customary happy ending or simple moral associated with such tales. His short fiction is populated with children, talking animals, elves, and snowmen who migrate to the mountains when spring threatens to melt them into puddles. Yet, side by side with the fantastical are everyday quarreling comrades, petty bureaucrats, unsuccessful suitors, aging relatives, foolish soldiers, and dishonest zookeepers. The result is a highly stylized universe that allows Mroek, like Franz Kafka before him, to balance the grotesque with the whimsical imagination.
Thus, Mroek blends the fantastical and the real, and the result, like the superimposition of one drawing on another, is striking in its visual effect. In “On a Journey,” a traveler in a horse-drawn chaise riding through an utterly believable country landscape notices that men in postal uniforms are standing at measured intervals along the road. The coachman informs the traveler that the men constitute the region’s wireless telegraph: One yells to the next, and he yells to the next, and so on. During The Martyrdom of Peter Ohey, in which a tiger is supposedly discovered in a middle-class family’s bathroom, an entire circus is set up in the family’s apartment without moving a single piece of furniture.
In response to totalitarian doublespeak, Mroek often subverts language through substituting an unlikely vocabulary for an expected one. Mroek describes an idyllic, rural wedding celebration in “A Wedding in Atom-town” but imposes on this conventional setting the trappings of nuclear jargon in place of colloquial speech. In preparation for the wedding, the bride is given electrolysis and put in a compression chamber, and, when a fight erupts during the wedding celebration, the guests deploy short-range rockets and cuff one another with atomic knuckledusters. Arguments for cannibalism in Out at Sea are presented by each character in speeches that use the rhetorical devices of political oratory, and two of the speakers stage a brief rally, where they wave a banner that reads, “We Want Food.” The two men forced into a room by a huge hand in Striptease attempt to deal with the inexplicable appendage in logical, philosophical language that scarcely masks their fear and helplessness. Implausible, but appropriate, such language choices function in Mroek’s work beyond mere satire to substantiate the intrinsic imaginative validity of each particular story and play.
Mroek’s targets are by no means limited to the manifestations of the repressive political and social climate in Poland. Pressure to conform, and thus surrender the imagination, comes not only from the state, but also from the established artistic community. His portraits of the artist can be scathing; he attacks both aesthete and social realist in his short stories. Mroek, however, was never strongly aligned with an active, subversive avant-garde in his country, as his satire of the Polish avant-garde in “Escape Southward” demonstrates. Moreover, the same story presents Mroek at his most amusing and his most forceful in that it makes a travesty of the international avant-garde masterpiece, Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953 Waiting for Godot, 1954). His portraits of the foolish Eleanor and the ineffectual Stomil in Tango provide further evidence of his disparagement of the avant-garde, yet, paradoxically, his own drama is indebted to two of his Polish avant-garde precursors, Witold Gombrowicz and Witkacy. For Mroek, the imagination, which cannot be subjected to state law or the pressure of artistic peers, seems even more alluring, more triumphant, when cast against a background of ideological indoctrination and rigid artistic conventions.
His conception of the artist and of art itself lies squarely in the Romantic tradition that has evolved from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Percy Bysshe Shelley down through the existentialists. In Tango, artists are construed as historically gifted people who, unlike other men, are united with the spirit of women and children, and Mroek’s experiences under tyranny have led him to see that Shelley’s proud boast that poets are indeed the unacknowledged legislators of the world is taken seriously by men in power. They fear that the poet’s effect might loosen their hold, and consequently they suppress a force they understand too well as a threat to their own security. As the brutish Eddie tells Stomil near the end of act 3 of Tango, “Nothing to worry about so long as you keep quiet and do what I say.” The artist in Mroek’s work embodies many Romantic qualities: He is a solitary figure, he rebels against artistic convention, he struggles for the triumph of the imagination, and he is a political progressive.
This artistic stance is particularly apt in the Polish theater, which is often used as a forum for the presentation of ideas for cultural and political debate. Despite the particular dramatic technique at work in sophisticated Polish theater, the major Polish plays of the past one hundred years inevitably involve the clash of ideas. Wyspiaski’s plays, for example, decidedly romantic and full of spectacle, ultimately deal with political and social issues. The same audience that applauded Wyspiaski also cultivated a taste for the unelaborate intellectual play of ideas. In addition, the oddity of Polish nationalism, grounded in cultural heritage and Roman Catholicism rather than in geographical reality, has resulted in a number of paradoxes that have helped shape the themes and techniques of modern Polish theater; Mroek’s work continues this tradition.
Soviet repression did not alter this, although it forced Mroek, while living in Poland, to develop an oblique dramaturgy that, while receiving government approval, served to reinforce, in its allusions and idioms, Polish national feeling. Mroek’s introduction to The Police, in which he carefully explains that “this play does not contain anything except what it contains,” is an example of ingenious equivocation that invites the audience to look for everything he says is not there. Most of Mroek’s early plays contain direct, if often subtle, allusions to the political situation of contemporary Poland; this state of affairs, which helped shape the vision of Mroek’s fiction, is concisely rendered in one exchange in the third act of Tango. Stomil asks if he can still have his own opinion. “Of course,” replies Eugene. “As long as it agrees with ours.”
The Police, Mroek’s first play to receive considerable attention, puts onstage a world in which this kind of totalitarian attitude has triumphed. The last remaining prisoner in a police state disavows all of his former revolutionary beliefs and swears allegiance to the heads of state, the Infant King, and his Uncle the Regent, thus effectively rendering the police obsolete. The Chief of Police, disturbed by the prospect of an entire bureaucratic system deprived of purpose, persuades the loyal Sergeant, in the name of saving the police, to shout out a window that the Regent, uncle to the Infant King, is a “dirty swine.” This accomplished, the Chief arrests the Sergeant, and the police again have a raison d’être. The play’s action degenerates into an absurd...
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